On a Friday evening at the start of July, a crowd had gathered at the bottom of Smithfield Square, despite a light rain.
Standing in a ring, they sang traditional Irish songs, most new to the participants until today.
Each tune was arranged to be sung as a call-and-response. Those in the circle took the choruses and refrains. The verses were belted out by Macdara Yeates, a traditional singer from East Wall.
A young man with dark blonde hair and a Barbour wax jacket, he was positioned in the centre of the assembly, presenting on Dublin’s music heritage as part of a poetry festival, 05Fest, organised with the Abbey Theatre.
One of three artists on “Midnight Run”, a cultural walking tour, his contribution was an introduction to the local trad songs of the city.
Teaching his audience to sing their parts on the spot, Yeates selected songs with varied subject matter. They reflected on work, love and injustices, with the common ground being Dublin, its sights and characters.
Unearthed by Yeates through extensive research, he says, what compels him to collect such local songs is the fact that their writers translated their hopes and fears, and shared them with their neighbours.
These songs, he says, provide an insight into the emotional history of the country. Emphasising their value,
Yeates quotes singer Frank Harte, himself a collector, who said, “Those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs”.
Yeates seeks them out, he says, seeing his mission as finding Dublin’s less-celebrated writers and keeping their lyrics alive.
He wants to hear them being sung by new generations, he says. “For me it is the active reintroduction of these songs into a community.”
Beneath Your Feet
Growing up in East Wall, Macdara Yeates was surrounded by music. There was always singing at home and at family gatherings, he said in early September over coffee in a bar on Middle Abbey Street.
It wasn’t just traditional singing, he says, but even back then he was more attracted to that. “There was a certain mystery and frankness to it that, even as a child, was mesmerising.”
Still, he says, now in his early thirties, he didn’t view his locale as a place from which he could draw musical inspiration, necessarily. He wanted to get as far away from Dublin as he could.
“But there’s a saying, when you’re beginning traditional singing, it’s ‘Dig the ground beneath your feet.’ Don’t jump over to Connemara straight away to learn sean-nós singing. Find out where you’re from.”
For years, he had listened to The Dubliners, feeling envious as they sang of different streets in the city, none of which were in his neighbourhood.
He adored hearing them name the places he knew, be it Ringsend or the Liberties, he says. “It set off this pang of familiarity that was rewarding.”
“But still,” he says, “it was never over in my corner of the city.”
Then he heard a set of lyrics from from the 1950s song, “The Pub with Good Beer” by the songwriter Joe O’Grady: “If you live up town, now ramble down or go to Eden Quay/ Stand in the queue, for a minute or two, then take Bus 53/A fourpenny fare will take you there’ it’s not too far at all/ Then away she rips, for to wet your lips, in Cusack’s of East Wall.”
“Oh my god,” Yeates says. “My head exploded after years of never hearing any local references in songs.”
The 53 bus from East Wall to Talbot Street had been Yeates’ main means of travelling into the city centre, he says, and to see something as mundanely familiar as a transport route being committed to song changed his outlook.
“The more I dug deep into this stuff, the more I found there was a really rich tradition here,” he says.
“Now, it’s been a core focus of mine,” Yeates says, “working on my own little patch of Dublin, seeing how the people of the past expressed themselves and what that tells us about the area today.”
Collecting a Verse or Two
Yeates had combed through enough of the major traditional albums about Dublin to know that his own part of the city was remarkably underrepresented in their verses, he says.
So he looked elsewhere, sifting through newspaper archives and asking for help from local history groups and families in East Wall
He first turned to labouring communities like the dockworkers, he says. “To my mind, those are the places where there is camaraderie and there’s a hearth in the local pub where guys meet after work, and where songs or storytelling take place.”
The chief musical chronicler of life in East Wall was Joe O’Grady, a dockworker active as a songwriter particularly in the 1950s.
O’Grady had been born at the turn of the 20th century, Yeates says, and had been involved in the 1913 Lock-Out.
“He wrote extensively about East Wall, local streets, goings-on and happenings like the building of a new church,” he says. “And he sold these lyrics door-to-door, some of which were donated by family and local residents.”
O’Grady’s lyrics celebrated “the bold Dublin Dockers” and landmarks such as “Johnny Cullen’s Hill”, a local nickname for the East Road over the docklands railway line.
They also served as records of major events, such as the catastrophic floods that wrought havoc on East Wall in December 1954:
“O come all ye lads from old Church Road wherever you may be/ And I’ll sing for you a verse or two of the Great Calamity./ The rain came down in bucketfuls, the night it was pitch dark,/ Sure the like of it was never known since Noah and his Ark.”
Yeates had believed there were no songs lauding his neighbourhood. But that changed when he discovered O’Grady, he says. “I was particularly amazed to find not one, but a whole hoard.”
Memories from the Dock
Yeates has mostly relied on singing sessions while assembling his collection of songs about Dublin, he says. “I only go through archives where there isn’t a living, breathing example of a singer who has a piece.”
Generally, once he puts out a word, people contact him, and bring him songs that may not have been seen as significant before, he says.
In Smithfield Square on that grey, wet Friday evening in July, Yeates raised one such example of this to his audience and choir.
It was a ballad titled “The Docker’s Song”, penned by a former dock worker named Bill Preston, which was presented to the Dublin Dock Workers Preservation Society by one of Preston’s children.
“Their father had written about this very complex labour dispute about union representation,” he says.
“The Docker’s Song” described a group of union workers who wore buttons, which granted them privileges, such as jumping the queue for work, he says.
“It was a very corrupt system,” he says. “The relative’s father, I believe, refused to take a button based on the inequality of it and wrote a song about the dispute.”
After guiding the audience through a rendition of Preston’s protest song, Yeates introduced the crowd to a piece of his own composition.
“The Great Blue Funnel Line” was inspired by English singer-songwriter Cyril Tawney’s song “Grey Funnel Line” and stories Yeates heard from former dockworkers about how goods would be smuggled off ships.
“I don’t mind the wind o’er the rolling sea/ The coal and slack never worried me/ For the warmest time for a smuggler true/ Is to watch the Funnel come into view.”
The Blue Funnel Line was a shipping company that operated between 1866 and 1988, and Yeates says, delivered goods for such department stores as Brown Thomas and Clerys.
“It was the favourite ship of dockers from which to supplement their income … if you like,” he says, laughing.
“That’s another angle to my work. If there isn’t the material extant about a certain topic, I hopefully can contribute to that.”
Yeates says while he enjoys writing traditional songs about Dublin, he prefers to dig up others that are nearly forgotten.
“Finding an old song that fits, on a really beautiful part of our city’s history and culture is much more rewarding,” he says.
Unfortunately, he adds, tracking down songs from the docklands is a more challenging task, owing to the scarcity of such compositions. “The sad thing is, while I’ve been capable of finding some songs, I’m not finding enough.”
Eventually, he hopes that the songs he has collected can be shared with the public, whether in a book, on an album or on a website.
But he mostly just wants them to continue being sung within communities around East Wall, he says. “I’m just interested in them getting as much of an airing as possible.”
“I can bring them to the Dublin Docklands Preservation Society or into the schools in Sheriff Street and East Wall, and get them living, back into people’s ears and mouths,” says Yeates. “If I can do one tenth of that, I’ll be happy.”